Stalwart Actors outshine script in Below the Belt
Also see David's review of A Thousand Clowns
This is despite playwright Richard Dresser having written a puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying play which is really more of a series of sketches about three losers languishing in mundane jobs in a strange unnamed land, in a dismal factory/compound where they are checkers of an unnamed product. Oh, and there are strange creatures with menacingly twinkly eyes that are lurking just outside. Hirsch plays Hanrahan, the gruff, grumpy veteran checker who now must share his mundane, cramped living space with the initially upbeat, newly arrived Dobbitt. They answer to Merkin, the department head who clearly takes some pleasure in trying to pit the pair against each other. The three are basically persona non grata with the rest of the company they work for, as exemplified by a reneged-upon invite to attend a company holiday party. The trio throws their own dismal attempt at a party, which is halted when some sort of oil fire erupts outside. Merkin's leadership stance? Let it burn. The men speak of their wives back home but never truly seem to miss or want to return permanently to them. In the end, it seems like even when presented with the option to leave, the trio will remain in this twilight world. At least the strange creatures dispose of them.
Below the Belt is an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle for Judd Hirsch, but his considerable presence, timing and personality are a delight to behold. Though Three decades have passed since Hirsch's heyday as the star of the classic sit-com "Taxi," his talents are undiminished. He is also capable of great depth as a performer, and when Hanrahan discovers that Dobbitt has betrayed him by writing a bogus letter from his wife, it was really disappointing that the actor wasn't given some sort of a dramatic monologue to play out in response. R. Hamilton Wright as Dobbitt is the closest thing to a likable character in the play, and the actor portrays the dehumanizing effects of his life in the compound with consummate skill. Procaccino is ideally cast as the duplicitous manager and scores big with a well-crafted monologue about going home on paid leave when his wife dies, only to find she has unexpectedly been resurrected. The trio of actors plays off of each other as if they'd been doing the show for months, and the success of the show as entertainment is totally a result of stars over script.
Matthew Smucker's scenic design is as starkly dismal as you could ask for, and Rick Paulsen creates sufficiently moody lighting design to accompany it. Deb Trout's costumes are suitably utilitarian.
Below the Belt is not an abysmal play by any means, just an unsatisfying one. And actors of Hirsch, Wright and Procaccino's stature deserve a play that doesn't require them to do so much heavy lifting to carry it.
Below the Belt plays at ACT Theatre, 7th Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle, through June 21st. For more information or tickets, contact the box office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.